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‘They call me grandpa’ – Boston Herald

Kyle Pugh remembers the play that would become just the first leg of an odyssey of repeated heartbreaks, only he didn’t know it at the time.

The Northern Illinois linebacker was trying to tackle then-San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny in the fourth quarter of a road game on Sept. 30, 2017, when he tore his left biceps.

“Yeah, that Rashaad Penny,” Pugh told the Tribune.

“Just shot an open gap and went for a routine tackle. And my forearm hit the runner’s leg, kind of hyperextending my elbow so it ruptured my bicep tendon at the elbow,” he said. It felt “like a rubber band pop.”

Today, Penny is a fifth-year Seattle Seahawks running back who featured prominently in Monday night’s primetime showdown against the Denver Broncos.

Pugh, 25, is still a member of the same Huskies five years later.

In fact, when Pugh suited up Sept. 1 against Eastern Illinois, it represented the start of his eighth and final season of college eligibility, barring some medical calamity.

And Pugh is all too familiar with calamity.

After all, how does someone make it to eight seasons of college football?

Four injuries, two redshirts, two degrees (and a master’s to come), a “free” COVID-19 season and a single-mindedness that Pugh wasn’t even sure he had.

“No part of me would have been OK with it,” Pugh said about the prospect not finishing his eligibility.

He’s part of a rare club of which he’d rather not be a member. There have been a handful of seventh-year student-athletes, but reportedly none had been granted an eighth year by the NCAA except East Tennessee State linebacker Jared Folks.

In Pugh’s case, “he’s definitely shown resilience and determination,” Huskies linebackers coach Robert Wimberly told the Tribune. “To know that he’s been in college for eight years, to have an opportunity to play his final year is definitely admirable.”

Like his fellow “super seniors,” Pugh has his reasons for sticking around.

“I have put so much into the game of football and proven that I can play at a high level,” he said. “But I’ve never been able to do it for as long as I wanted to. So if I had to walk away with that feeling, it would definitely be a disappointment.”

It all started with such optimism.

Pugh grew up in Chicago Heights believing Ray Lewis was “just the best to do it.” And Pugh made his own mark at Bloom Township, recording 112 tackles and making the All-Southland Conference team during his senior year in 2014.

Pugh said he came close to receiving 15 Division I offers, including Nevada, Indiana and Northwestern.

“I come from a pretty big family. I’m the youngest boy of 19 grandchildren,” he said. “Staying close to home was important to me so that a lot of my family could travel to the games, at least for the home games.”

Pugh opted to attend NIU, which was “doing big things and I wanted to be a part of (it),” he said, referring to NIU’s three Mid-American Conference championships in a four-year period, including 2014.

Pugh redshirted as a freshman in 2015 because there were upperclassmen ahead of him on the depth chart. In 2016, he primarily played special teams in 10 games.

In 2017, he burst out of the gate with 17 tackles and an interception in the season opener against Boston College, and had 35 tackles through four games before that fateful moment against San Diego State.

That’s where Pugh’s saga begins.

Sept. 30, 2017: The left biceps tear

When Pugh tore his left biceps, he said he didn’t feel much pain. In fact, he finished the game.

“The doc just told me in the locker room afterwards what actually happened,” Pugh said.

Pugh felt “disappointment. Confusion, I had got off to a really good start that year, and just to find out that I wasn’t going to be playing anymore, it was tough.”

Pugh missed the final eight games of the regular season and the Quick Lane Bowl against Duke.

“It was definitely a time where I had to lean on my family,” he said. “I was young and I hadn’t really been faced with that type of adversity before.”

Sept. 1, 2018: The right shoulder tear

When trainer Heath Duncan arrived in DeKalb in the spring of 2018, Pugh was doing well with his rehab and had no issues leading up to the season.

Then in the opener at Iowa, Pugh tore the labrum in his right shoulder.

“The unique thing about (a labral tear) is it’s a pretty painful injury, especially at the linebacker position,” Duncan said. “And it can be tough to kind of fight through.”

Pugh, however, played in 13 games that season, including the Huskies’ tight MAC championship win against Buffalo, when Pugh made nine tackles, and a Boca Raton Bowl loss to Alabama-Birmingham, when Pugh had seven stops.

He had a career-best 106 tackles for the season and was named to the All-MAC second team.

Pugh had surgery that December, Duncan said, according to school records. More rehab followed.

Sept. 7, 2019: The right shoulder fracture

Disaster struck again two games into the 2019 season against Utah when he broke the socket in the same shoulder.

“I delivered a pretty hard hit and it was just a freak accident,” he said.

That freak occurrence — which “broke the coracoid process” and glenoid in his shoulder socket, Duncan said — cost Pugh the rest of the season.

“Basically, you lose the ‘cup’ (in the shoulder socket),” Duncan said. “So it’s like sitting a golf ball on a golf tee. And you would shatter a piece of that golf tee and then try and put the ball back, and it would just kind of roll off.”

Duncan said Pugh had surgery two weeks after the injury.

“It was like a six- to eight-month long process,” Pugh said.

Here was yet another recovery, so Pugh started to reevaluate routines he had taken for granted.

“I figured there was something with my training regimen or the way that I was eating or something like that that was making me more susceptible to injury,” he said.

So he started “prehabbing,” he said.

“I started to have a prepractice routine and pregame routine to make sure I was warmed up properly and ready to go,” he said.

After that season, Pugh was granted a medical redshirt waiver that gave him an additional two seasons.

“I had to write a brief request to the NCAA for an extended career, just because of the time that I’ve spent on the sideline. It was only like a paragraph long,” Pugh said. “And then if you add up (my games, it) adds up to probably a season and a half.

“I sent it in and I didn’t really know what to expect or how they were going to respond to it, but they ended up giving me two extra years, which explains why I’m here now.”

2020: No injuries — just a pandemic

COVID-19 shut down sports in March 2020 and it would be months before many leagues would resume.

Because of the unusual circumstances, the NCAA granted athletes an extra year of eligibility whether they opted to play that fall or following winter, or not.

Pugh played five games, had 36 tackles and was selected to the All-MAC third team.

“No injuries that season,” he chimed in.

April 17, 2021: The right ACL tear

But the clean bill of health wouldn’t last long.

“I was fully cleared and ready to go to take on a full season,” Pugh said, “and then in the last practice of spring ball I tore my ACL in a non-contact injury.”

Duncan said Pugh also suffered meniscus damage as well.

“What happens is, you plant and then you’re stuck on that leg, and then you have some sort of twisting motion in the knee,” Duncan said.

“The whole job of the ACL is to keep your shin bone from shifting. When that ACL goes, the bones will bounce into each other and that’s normally what causes some sort of meniscus tear.”

But Pugh also had to worry about the psychological damage. He nearly reached his breaking point.

Said Pugh: “The training staff was examining me (on the field) and there was a brief moment where I said, ‘You know, I don’t know if I can do this again.’”

Pugh said that when he was alone he screamed in frustration.

But in the locker room, “I kind of centered myself and understood that there’s something that my mom always told me when I was growing up, and it was that ‘God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers.’

“That’s something that every time any adversity confronts me that always plays in my head. And so I sat there emotional and everything like that, but I understood that if it was meant for me to give up, I think it would more so coincide with me not having any more time or if I didn’t love the game as much anymore.

“But just because it was tough adversity, I didn’t have the option to quit.”

Pugh traveled to the Andrews Institute in Florida for his surgery.

But rehab was different this time. He had trouble changing direction and decelerating. His subconscious had to regain confidence in his body.

“(It’s) failing and trying again and re-accomplishing things and learning how to do certain things, dynamic movements,so it was definitely more a mental recovery than than the rest of my surgeries,” Pugh said.

Duncan had watched Pugh navigate past injuries and rehabs with hardly a word of complaint, but he knew this time something was off.

“It’s a very devastating thing to happen” Duncan said. “This would be a fourth time that he’s going through this. So I think there was some questioning probably internally of ‘What’s going on? How do I stay healthy? What’s the next step?’

“After (he) kind of got over that initial shock, he just went right back to work.”

2022: One final season

Pugh said his current teammates, some of them as much as seven years his junior, have been supportive, but that doesn’t mean they don’t give him grief.

“Pretty much any song from the early 2000s … they’ll say, ‘Were you in high school when this came out?’” Pugh said. “I hear it all. They call me grandpa.”

It’s not just the students, either.

Said Duncan: “I don’t know if there’s a day that goes by when we’re taping him that we don’t throw a joke at him. … ‘How was it when NSYNC’s first album came out?’ … ‘Michael Jackson in his early days, when he was a kid? Like, how was that concert?’”

Wimberly said he calls Pugh “Methuselah, the oldest man, according to the Bible.”

Duncan said Pugh “just starts shaking his head and kind of laughs. I think he’s probably heard every joke you can hear about being old. It just rolls off at this point.”

Pugh throws some punchlines back if he’s in a joking mood, but even he admits there are some stark changes in locker room culture from when he first started.

“I’m still not on TikTok, I don’t really have the time,” Pugh said. “I don’t know what the dance is that they’re doing and what’s going on, but it’s definitely different.”

But there’s respect there, too.

“To know the battles and things he’s had to overcome in his life through injuries to get to this point, you definitely have respect for what you’re trying to accomplish,” Wimberly said.

“The younger men on the team respect him and look up to him, because he definitely has that other game experience. But just about the injuries that he’s had in his career, when young men maybe are nursing an injury or dealing with different situations, they can go to him. … And I think that’s what makes him special, because everybody sees what he’s had to overcome.’”

Pugh volunteers be the voice when players have to address issues with coaches, but his institutional wisdom extends outside the locker room.

“I don’t know, really, anybody who has been here longer than Kyle, from our coaching to operations to the athlete training staff,” Duncan said.

Case in point, Pugh had four years under coach Rod Carey and is in his fourth year under Thomas Hammock.

Pugh’s also had time to further his education. He received an undergraduate degree in kinesiology in 2019, a master’s in sports management in 2020 and is on track to earn a master’s in sports and exercise psychology in December.

Somewhere down the line, he wants to work with the mental side of sports and sports injuries. But these final few months are about putting everything he has left into football. He still craves the chance to excel on the field and holds onto a dream of maybe hearing his name called by the NFL on draft day.

“He loves the film room. He’s a student of the game,” Wimberly said.

Pugh said he expects coaches will “save me reps” here and there to help preserve him, but otherwise there have been no restrictions.

Whether or not there’s football in his long-term future, Pugh said he has learned through his faith and this entire saga that every experience he goes through, good or bad, is to his benefit.

“One of the major things that I’ve learned is that the power of the mind is incredible,” Pugh said. “This process has been different for me this time around because I’ve taken more time to allow myself to be ready mentally. I’ve always kind of rushed back into things and took all the precautions to rehab myself back to health physically, but I never really paid much mind to the mental aspect of it.

“There’s a heavy psychological part of rehabilitation and there’s sometimes you need to get into some meditation or positive self-talk and different things like that. I’ve taken the time to do that this time around. So there’s no doubt in my mind when I hit the field again that I’m 100% healthy.

“And I’m going to stay that way.”


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